Monday, 20 March 2017

Despair is not an option


I'm in the midst of writing a book about Buddhism and the environment. By 'environment', I mean just about everything material and immaterial that we're living in. This is because my sense of what constituted the environment changed as I started reflecting around the original core of the topic, the degradation of the natural world. My conclusion was that the 'environment' that we are involved in is an interconnected reality of internal and external fields, of mind and matter, that co-dependently arise. 

Huh? 

Well, as I researched, I kept wondering: 'Why, when there is so much evidence about our effect on the planet, and about 97%+ scientists agree that our actions are driving planetary life to extinction; why when the temperature rises every year, the Arctic is melting, drought and fires incinerate Australia, and floods, hurricanes are on the increase; why, when we have environmentally-friendly alternatives, do we persist in these destructive ways?' And one answer, or part of the answer has to be that the environment is stitched to the global economy; and that has become structured around directly using or trading in the potential to exploit planetary resources (and coincidentally pollute the air, water and earth); and that this economy exerts a huge influence on government. Money buys power. Moreover, ‘planetary resources’ includes not only everything that we can’t create (and which is in limited supply) but also includes people – as workers and consumers. The economy’s point of view is that it has to keep growing (?) and so it needs to keep people buying stuff (even stuff like water which falls out of the sky) in order to do that; and that it has to give them the wherewithal to do that buying. (In a world of growing inequality, where does that money go?) One tricky bit is that business grows best when it gets higher profits, so ideally it’s better to minimize wages. Hence automation, redundancies and poverty. Handling this set-up of giving people enough to spend while providing desirable objects must be quite an act; except that by privatizing necessities, such as water, and making other stuff necessary but with built-in obsolescence (such as smartphones), people more or less have to keep pumping for money. Hence ‘Jobs!’ becomes a political promise ( even though the economy requires and creates unemployment). Maybe I look at the wrong media, but could it be that this is what’s happening? Could it be that the mix of paranoid fantasy, promises and bellicose rhetoric in the political arena is to keep people distracted, blaming and fearful of ‘others’ – and therefore willing to accept a reduction in personal freedom? Hmmm. I recall seeing how a few wolves could panic a herd of bison so that they split up; then they picked off the most vulnerable member. Divide and rule: the politics of the wedge. 

Not that I’m an expert in these matters. But if I’m teaching people, I have to have some sense of what they’re involved with, and the long-term potential of actions and inactions. So, to put it simply, the inner environment of the human mind has always been prone to greed, hatred and delusion, and now we have the technology to go into mass-production. Thus an internal environment conditioned by fear and greed is bound to affect the systems by which we live – and that affects the biosphere. 

This is hardly news. In fact in his address to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago back in 1993, Ven. Bhikkhu Payutto, the most eminent scholar-monk in Thailand today, outlined the perceptions that he saw as the source of the social and environmental problems that face humanity:

• The perception that humankind is separate from nature, and that it must control, conquer or manipulate nature according to human desires.
• The perception that fellow humans are not our fellows; the tendency to focus on the differences between us rather than the common ground. 
• The perception that happiness is dependent on gaining and keeping an abundance of material possessions.

Such perceptions still seem to dominate the mainstream.

So, why bother to write another treatise on a theme that has been adequately covered already, and whose conclusions find inadequate response in the corridors of power? 

Well, I claim responsibility for one piece of the environment – that is, the ‘inner environment’. At least my mind. And as my mind arises in a context of sharing, virtue and trust, I have a responsibility to inquire into the collective inner environment. And be proved wrong if that’s the case. I agree that there is much that I don't know, and I would not imagine that a few words by a Buddhist monk are going to have much effect in the board rooms of global industry, or in the offices where the subsidies that support agro-business in its conversion of soil and trees into money are worked out.  It's not that I think that people should not protest, claim the power to vote on and veto measures that will affect the air, water and soil that they depend on; I would in fact consider that a realignment of the political status quo is a necessary support for the salvation of the planet. To a degree there is already a momentum in this: Occupy, grass-roots movements, local government initiatives and the creation of alternative currencies all indicate that people are tired of waiting for the centralized state to act.  But my own work has to be based on keeping this mind awake and responsive within the human community.

As for setting down some ideas in print: it was in 2013, after a particularly chilling 'climate change' presentation by Bill McKibben (of www.350.org) to the Vipassana Teachers' Conference, the teachers were asked to consider: 'What support can you offer, what positive action can you contribute to the welfare of the planet and those who live on it?' Responses ranged from sending a petition to Barack Obama, to establishing ongoing internet communications, to the generation of a network, the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE). (It's still going strong, see www.thedancewebsite.org). Most action centres around freeing the mind from negative reactions (depression, violence) to community support, to creating small grass-roots initiatives in farming, recycling and alternative technology, plus the occasional flash mob demonstration. It's a spreading response; it looks small, but it probably did contribute to the Paris 2015 Climate Change agreement. Which is a significant step – although inadequate unless implemented and steadily upgraded.

There didn't seem to be much else I could do: the monastery is pretty green already, but also resistant to a publicly-engaged response. But I decided that as an elder who sits in on Buddhist gatherings and teaches a few, I would at least say something; that I had that responsibility. Hence the resolution to include the theme in talks and also to write a book.  This has taken over 3.5 years so far, namely because I can only research and write what has now around 60,000 words when I have weeks of uninterrupted time: and then it therefore has to compete with my need for stillness and deep meditation practice.  The research itself also puts me in touch with a mountain of depressing statements and statistics. Here are a few: 'if current rates of degradation continue all of the world's top soil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said on Friday.' 'We are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming,' (Reuters, Dec 5, 2014) 'By 2050, at the current rate of dumping and overfishing, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.' (World Economic Forum, January 2016). (And plenty of that plastic will have travelled up the food-chain into human bodies by then; maybe cancer should appear on the menu.) It is at least comforting to note how mainstream is the platform on which the alarm bells are ringing. Surely something must shift. 

But I'm not pinning my hopes on that. Much of what was fresh, unique and regenerative will disappear; we will, if we work at it, be left with a percentage and a new way of managing it. People at the grass-roots level, and within the fields of science and technology are working on it; even the upper management of society is reckoning that it costs too much to have entire cities wiped out through flood damage, or have the workforce disabled by atmospheric pollution.  An optimist would say that the full picture of the environmental crisis has only received (almost) universal acceptance in the last decade, so maybe we need more time to find solutions and set things straight. Maybe so. In the face of my own mortality and personal impotence, I find only one option: to work on what I can find that is worthy. Frustration, despair and bitterness have always been inadequate responses to suffering.  So I work against the potential for these in a way that is suitable for awakening, and I extend that work wherever I can. 'With the ceasing of ignorance is the ceasing of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.' This practice is always worthy, and nothing need take that away.


It is good to realize the numbers of people who are now inquiring, challenging, discussing and creating new possibilities: the growth of renewables, the movement against plastic bags and bottles, the greening of cities, the emphasis on recycling. The transnationalism of the economy has generated an imbalance of wealth; it must be mediated by a transnational ethic of sharing and compassion. As for political change: things are pretty chaotic, and that might allow new ways of organizing our societies to come forth. There must be a turning point at which collective suicide becomes unsustainable. 

Whatever we're left with, and in whatever way we push back the wave of ignorance, we must sustain and gather round that which is worthy. As I am made aware by the goodwill, honesty and self-sacrifice of others, there’s that in the human mind.  How can such nobility be swamped by ignorance? There is a truth of the spirit to be sustained and dwelt in.

For those of you involved in meeting this world, here's a handy memo that I came across, somewhere in trawling through various sites for statistics and views: 
I will not be angry and violent
I will not be depressed
I will not feel loss of hope
I will not lose my energy
I will not stop listening to others who do not agree with me
I will not make people ‘others’
(Apologies to the author, I don't know where it's from.)

As today I can still walk freely under a blue spring sky into which the birch are poking their eager buds; as today I am supported by the freewill generosity of many people; as today I am given the opportunity to deepen into that awareness and view proclaimed by the Buddha, I am unbelievably blessed. I may perch on one corner of this rocky human raft for a while longer. Who knows where it’s going? But I offer my own road map:
Ignorance is unacceptable. Awaken the mind and respond to community. Despair is not an option.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Diversity and Community: the Kamma of Relationship


My winter’s sojourn this year is in rural Ontario; Tisarana Monastery to be more precise. It’s as much nowhere as many other forest monasteries, but other than offering a space to put down the duties it also offers me the opportunity to spend contemplative time with Ajahn Viradhammo. ‘Ajahn V’, as he has been known for decades, is my oldest (most long-term) Dhamma brother. We go back some 38 years. Although we have checked in now and then over the years, it’s a special time when I can stay with such a Dhamma-peer in a leisurely and prolonged way – when there is nothing else that either of us has to be involved with. We share about an hour per day. There are no plans, no set topics; sometimes our sharing is around the horrors of world news, sometimes it’s anecdotes or dialogues about spirit and letter of the Vinaya, or discussions about meditation. Sometimes we’re contemplating the squirrels that launch themselves at his bird-feeder. Most important: it’s always inconclusive, a mutual scattering of some breadcrumbs for inquiry and reflection. In this way, a good friend helps you to explore your mind and its views and lay them beside that of others.

Apart from the content of such sharing, and the fact that it is shared, the context is valuable. Which is not Ontario, but a relational field – a psychological space that one’s awareness dwells in and (often unconsciously) refers to. This is the same for everyone. Obviously, we all feel connected to people and places, but more deeply, awareness (citta) is affected by whatever’s arising in the present as well as by tendencies inherited from the past. The details of how it’s affected make up a ‘field’ of effects, through which one’s mind tends to trawl – notably in meditation. This affective field is partly formed by kamma – one’s intentional actions – but what one inherits is more than that. Your awareness is also programmed by what has been done to you (or not provided by others). Hence the messages of the family, and the society in which one lives, the withdrawal or non-provision of safety and respect, have lasting effects. In brief, not all that you experience is because of your past actions. So it’s not all your fault!

Therein, friends, in the case of those ascetics and brahmins, proponents of kamma, who maintain that suffering is created by oneself, that is conditioned by contact. Also … that suffering is created by another, that too is conditioned by contact … Also that suffering has arisen fortuitously, being created neither by oneself nor by another, that too is conditioned by contact. (S 12,24)

To add a detail: a major part of what ‘contact’ means is the subjective ‘take’ on an experience, ‘how that remark/ gesture/ strikes me’. In other words, contact is the arising of the perception (‘friendly, ‘challenging’) that marks and becomes the orienting focus of our experience. Based on that orientation, our psychological activities (sankhāra) arise. Then there is kamma, action. So our habitual responses are programmed by mental perceptions – the attitudes, and inclinations that we have learnt in our lives. Furthermore, the major source of this perceptual lexicon is other people: their hostility or benevolence, their prejudice or openness, and so on. So, for good or for bad, how I perceive others, in general and in specific instances – and how I sense they perceive me – forms the basis of much of our ‘personal’ orientation. Personal, yes, but determined by contact rather than by some self.

Of course, we can contribute to the space in which our awareness dwells, and that does mean creating good kamma. To expand that a little: good kamma refers to who and what one chooses to associate with, or refrains from associating with; what livelihood one chooses; what impulses you act upon or refrain from acting on; and what you put into your mind. All that is going to lay down and embellish the psychological realm in which you live. As it is often said, it is a blessing to be born in a context in which the Buddha’s teachings can be heard; and to find a situation within which to associate with the wise: ‘this is the highest blessing’. Such contexts and such choices are to be made, as one’s ongoing mind-set depends on it. This essential dependency is right view, the heart of Dhamma-cultivation.

One should associate only with the good;
With the good one should foster intimacy.
Having learnt the true Dhamma of the good,
One is released from all suffering. (S.1. 31)

For me, the greatest blessing of my life is to have been able to access a wise relational field. Dhamma practice has sprung from there, not from the books. Sure, there have been and will be personal conflicts and fraught places. But I realize how fortunate I am. This is especially brought home through teaching in the USA over the years. I encounter a field rife with abuse: childhood, sexual ... as well as issues around ‘people of color’ (POC) and of non-heterosexual orientation (LGBTIQ). In the USA, POC includes people of African, Caribbean, Asian, and Native American descent, and from anywhere south of the Rio Grande  – that is, the majority of people on the planet. As Jews became ‘white’ in the 1950s, I’m not certain whether Israelis are of color, though Syrians (refugees) would be. I’m not sure how much non-whiteness one has to have in one’s genes to be POC; it may be that it depends on how one identifies. As with all lines, there are some blurry areas. Sexual orientation is another sensitive topic, with homophobic messages included in religious dissemination. Anyway, these groups in particular have been the focus for much consideration and revised protocols in American retreat centers. The narrative that supports their issues is rich with stories of people feeling unsafe (with good reason) in the company of people outside their group. Consequently there are retreats for such groups, and even on the ‘all-comers’ retreats that I teach, the designation of areas for ‘marginalized only’( = POC + LGBTIQ) is a a proposed option. At one Dhamma center I taught at in USA, the boundaries were redefined, not in terms of color, but gender, where certain tables in the dining area were designated as ‘Women Only’ – because some women don’t feel safe sitting near men. It is taking me a while to really ‘get’ this; I can understand the theory and respect the concerns and the need to feel safe, but as my fortune has been to not feel threatened (well, an authority figure or two in a uniform can cause a certain heightening of awareness) I’m not wired up to the threat signals.

I was raised in multi-cultural working class London, I went to a university whose student population was international, and I shared accommodation (same room) with women, gays, and all kinds in the ‘hippy’ commune era. So it took me a while to get used to the monastic segregation between bhikkhus and women that is the norm (especially in Thailand). I had, and still do have, the perception that people are people; I barely notice the differentiations, and easily glide over them. This of course is my perceptual bias. But when I adopt the differentiations and look at myself, I see: ‘White, Male, Straight, Religious Authority figure, hailing from a country whose colonial imperialism imprinted itself on much of the planet.’ And I wonder: what happens to ‘feeling safe’ when I walk in the room?

Fortunately, and ironically, ‘people of color’ – meaning Indians, Sri Lankans, Thais, Burmese, Cambodians – make up a disproportionate bulk (compared with the national percentage) of my support group and discipleship. Even more obviously, the tradition that has picked me up introduced me to Dhamma and fostered my growth is of people of color who go back to Gotama Buddha. So far they haven’t found me to be a problem. 



The norm in monasteries is to mingle; Ajahn Chah’s standard in particular was to encourage group meetings and to get people to work together. In terms of sexual boundaries and orientation, the Thai social standard is that these are allowed to be fluid in private, but fixed around what one looks like when in public (so transexual men who manifest as women 'are' women). Then, in the monasteries, sexual behaviour and signalling is put aside; some bhikkhus are gay, and, as is the case with heterosexuals, they are expected to address their sexuality in themselves.

I have also travelled widely and taught Xhosa, Zulu, Indian, Sri Lankan, Nepali, Japanese, Chinese, Thai et al. No issue, outside of the USA. One might assume that this is because the people with such issues don’t show up where I teach; but having been invited in to meet with people in their own living spaces, I feel that this is unlikely. One obvious factor is that even in South Africa, the native people were always the majority; they kept their culture, and so they 'knew' who they were. The problem is (as far as I can make out) largely American, which is a nation based on immigration – and which has genocide and slavery at its foundation. The current materialistic ethic also encourages stratification in terms of income; some folks can’t afford a retreat – even though, I hasten to add, the centers often offer sponsorship and just charge what it takes to provide the requisites. It's just that taking time off work (if one can get it) will naturally reduce income – and that may not be manageable.

Currently, the Trump election has sent a charge of seismic proportions through American society. Fear and anger are rife, most notably among those ‘minorities’ who, when you add them all up, form the majority. So, in this escalating sequence of paradoxes, it’s got to the point where even centers espoused to the Refuge of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, morality, calm and mutual respect no longer feel safe to all people. Hence the Dhamma community is attempting to address that –  in the way that I outlined above.

I am caused to wonder. If the way of designating an area were as with the ‘Women Only’ label, would I find areas in a center in which I teach labelled ‘POC only’, ‘reserved for LGBTIQ’ ? How would that affect me, or my white or straight students? Is it tantamount to ‘Whites not Allowed’ and therefore (irony again) a reverse-segregation? How then could I hold the group as a whole with empathy? Is it even possible to teach the group as a whole? What would bring around the necessary sense of harmony? Can we/I do the work of clearing the kammic residues of genocide, slavery and puritanical homophobia? America doesn't feel safe for quite a few of its citizens. Isn’t that something that has to be tackled in the society?

Personally I don’t see a silent retreat as the optimal place for that. I even wonder as to whether to keep leading them. Sure, we can each individually work with our ‘threat’, ‘marginal’ issues in a situation that has been sanitized – but my sense is that harmony arises through interaction, when each individual has developed and been encouraged in the skills of mutual interaction. A real ‘we’ only happens after the ‘I’s have settled; one can’t just state ‘we’ and expect it to be felt. That is, each person’s ‘I’ sense (however relative and conditioned) has to find its expression in meeting another ‘I’ in safety; the 'I's have to negotiate contact. But such a process goes beyond the normal meditation retreat. And in daily life, if the social norm is one of being in systems, living in stratified neighbourhoods, a lot of interaction, goes on through the internet, the phone or Facebook. Then another set of virtual-relational artifices come into play. (Apparently about 30 million ‘people’ on Facebook are literally dead; their account hasn’t been erased. Does reality even matter any more?)

In terms of heart then, humans are an endangered species. And I don’t have an answer, only breadcrumbs of Dhamma. What does it take to see ‘the good one’ in another person and use that relationship to shed the afflictive ‘me’? Maybe it’s what the jumble of monastic scenarios, with people bound to precepts and sharing, can support. Currently at Tisarana, at least 5 (I’m not certain about the finer gradations of color) of the community of around 22 would be POC in American terms. People have the usual human stuff, but we work together, even on retreat; there are regular group check-ins to clear any bad air. Not that there’s much, and none along the lines of color or sexuality. When one understands contact, is mindful of it, there’s the beauty and the possibility of a fresh orientation. With skillful relationship, we can heal out of the abusive residues. If we act from our humanness, flawed as it is, good kamma is still possible.